Detroit Service Industry Workers Need More Protections  

In 2021, workers at Hamtramck’s iconic Polonia restaurant filed a lawsuit alleging wage theft, sexual harassment and discrimination by a manager. The photo shows a protest in support of the lawsuit.

Photo courtesy of Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. 


Although they are everywhere, restaurant workers are a class of a community’s economy that often doesn’t get the protections and benefits entitled to employees in other industries. From a lack of steady, livable wages, health insurance, and strict regulations to safeguard against harassment, the service industry and growing gig economy leaves tens of thousands of workers in Detroit without these critical safeguards to live a dignified life.  

It is in this vein that last month, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (M-13) introduced House Resolution 1528, the Restaurant Workers Bill of Rights in partnership with worker members of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United. The proposed policy seeks to legally recognize restaurant workers’ rights to “thriving wages, healing, rest, a safe and dignified working environment, universal health care, bodily autonomy, and democracy in their workplace.” 

“No one should have to worry about paying rent at the end of the month or making ends meet because they can’t rely on consistent tips and lack paid sick leave,” said Tlaib in a press release. 

 “Our restaurant workers simply want an opportunity to thrive—not just survive—and deserve a safe, dignified working environment. No worker should be exploited, retaliated against, or denied benefits, especially for organizing for better working conditions and a better quality of life. Access to health care should not be a privilege tied to your employment, but a basic human right.” 

According to a ROC United survey of more than 1,000 restaurant workers, one in 10 workers were compelled to report to work while COVID-positive due to pressure from their employer or the lack of paid sick leave. Of those who experienced wage loss, 91 percent did not receive hazard pay or increased pay for working during the pandemic. As a result, 60 percent said they are seeking employment outside the service sector. 

In addition to these issues, restaurant and gig economy workers are currently dealing with the complications of alleged overpay in their unemployment filings they relied on during the pandemic. 

In Michigan, the standard maximum unemployment payout amount is $362.00 per week. During the pandemic, a new federal program added temporary additional funds to the state unemployment benefit of $600 per week. 

An audit of Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) reported an estimated $3.9 billion to 347,437 residents in COVID-19 related aid and financial assistance was overpaid to ineligible claimants since March 15, 2020.  

“We have a broken unemployment system in Michigan,” said Paris, lead attorney at Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. “When Rashida was here, we fought tooth and nail with federal lawsuits….and now you take this broken system and you put out an unprecedented amount of unemployment filers on it because of the pandemic and it’s been a perfect storm of a nightmare.  

“Hundreds of thousands of people were paid out initially on their pandemic unemployment. The feds came in too late to Michigan and said you were being too loose with their rules. Not so long after, hundreds of thousands of people were told they had to pay it all back. Too many service industry workers, musicians, artists and gig workers were out of work and relied on this. This was the first time in American history that you could get unemployment with not having a W2, you could be a 1099 contractor and qualify.” 

Last year, Paris said he attended 110 hearings for residents appealing UIA claims of overpay. The average client was cited to have between $5,000-$50,000 in unemployment overpay.  

Since 1991 the Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, a Detroit-based nonprofit organization, has been dedicated to providing political advocacy and legal support to low-income, working-class people to ensure equitable conditions of employment. 

Last year, the law center’s most common cases included unemployment overpayment appeals and cases of tip theft and sexual harassment of restaurant workers, which Paris said was “rampant in the industry”.  

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that wage theft costs employees $50 billion annually. Millions of dollars in salaries are withheld from servers, bussers, hosts, bartenders and other restaurant employees each year by restaurant businesses. 

Millions of dollars in salaries are lost by restaurant workers because their employers improperly deduct tips, withhold wages or underpay their staff. Restaurant employees are protected by employment regulations from lost income as a result of wage theft. Employees who work for a restaurant whose owner violates these regulations may be entitled to back pay, damages and penalties. 

“These workers rely heavily on the tipping for their wages, which is an unreliable income in most cases but also leaves you vulnerable to that type of harassment or discrimination because you rely on tips so you feel pressure to remain polite,” said Paris.  

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the restaurant industry receives the most sexual harassment accusations than any other. According to a 2014 study, 80 percent of women and 70 percent of men working in the restaurant business experienced sexual harassment by coworkers, with 66 percent of female and more than 50 percent of male restaurant employees reporting sexual harassment by supervisors. 

Paris said there have been cases when Sugar Law Center represented workers advocating for their rights, such as Polonia Village in Hamtramck. A lawsuit was filed in 2021 alleging that female employees were sexually harassed, faced racial and homophobic discrimination, as well as being robbed of their tips by a manager.  

“They had huge tips stolen and were subjected to constant sexual harassment,” said Paris. “We wanted not just back pay, but are fighting to make substantive policy changed in these places, the rules need to be enforced. These are major labor violations and too often restaurant workers are afraid to speak out because they depend on these jobs or don’t know their rights.” 

When asked if Congresswoman Tlaib’s bill promoting a restaurant worker’s bill of rights will effect policy reform, Paris said, “I think there is no one-size bill that can change an industry that has been operating this way for a long time, but it is certainly an organizing tool that can be used to put these really terrible issues on blast. Change needs to come local. We need ordinances and protections in our city where employees have a voice on what they need.” 

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